He scored four goals and gained the type of experience that, despite his status as a favorite to win the Calder Trophy as the league’s best rookie, makes him more of an experienced vet than most 22-year-olds.
Partly because of Couture’s emergence as a 32-goal scorer and a perfect second-line center behind Joe Thornton in his first full NHL season, I believe the Sharks should be able to take their playoff run one step farther this season.
In the preseason, I chose Detroit to win the Western Conference. Although the Red Wings are still a solid choice, I reserve the right to change my mind based on the teams’ play in the regular season and the first-round match-ups. The Sharks should coast past a Anze Kopitar-less Los Angeles squad, while the Wings without Henrik Zetterberg for an undetermined amount of time will have their hands full with Phoenix.
The Sharks made the necessary adjustments to their game to make sure their defense is difficult to exploit. So they were 10th in goals against per game while still finishing sixth in goals scored. Their back end took a hit from the retirement of Rob Blake, but the continued improvement of Douglas Murray, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers, in addition to the trade addition of Ian White, have provided stalwart Dan Boyle with a solid supporting cast.
In net, Antti Niemi has been counted out before. But last time I looked, Chicago won the Stanley Cup with the Finn between the pipes and this season needed help on the last day of the season to qualify for the playoffs without him.
Here are all of my Western Conference first-round picks:
No. 1 Vancouver vs. No. 8 Chicago
The Canucks have a score to settle with the Blackhawks, who have knocked out Vancouver the last two seasons. Vancouver has worked too hard to finish atop the league to allow the ‘Hawks to oust them in the first round. With the best line in hockey — Alex Burrow with Henrik and Daniel Sedin — plus outstanding depth up front and excellent special teams, the Canucks should be able to subdue a worn-out Chicago team that was playing in Game 7 situations for most of the last several weeks of the season.
Pick: Canucks in 6
No. 2 San Jose vs. No. 7 Los Angeles
The Kings are as pedestrian as can be without Kopitar percolating the offense. They have no idea what they’ll get out of Dustin Penner and their defense isn’t much of a match for the Sharks’ top six. Jonathan Quick also has yet to prove he’s a prime-time goaltender when the stakes are raised to playoff levels.
Pick: Sharks in 5
No. 3 Detroit vs. No. 6 Phoenix
The Zetterberg injury scares me enough to think this could be an upset. Plus, I’m not convinced Jimmy Howard is ready to back bone a playoff run. Nonetheless, the Coyotes and their 14th-ranked offense seem like a perfect match-up for the banged-up Wings, who obviously have tons of experience on their side
Pick: Red Wings in 7
No. 4 Anaheim vs. No. 5 Nashville
The Ducks have been red-hot but they obviously have question marks in goal, where they might have to turn to Dan Ellis if Ray Emery and Jonas Hiller are both out injured. I like how Anaheim pieced together a balanced, talented defense corps that’s a solid combination of youth and experience. The Predators have never won a playoff series and I can’t see how outside of Pekka Rinne posting a goals-against average of less than one that their 21st-ranked offense can get by the Ducks. Frankly, I don’t even understand how Nashville made the playoffs, let alone earned the fifth seed.
My pick: Ducks in 6